An Interview with Robert Schoen, about his new book,Hitch&Alma
How would you describe your new book, Hitch&Alma?
SCHOEN: The best description I’ve heard so far comes from Hitchcock expert Ken Mogg, who commented it is really "a fantasy novel POSING as a screenplay." These days, most popular novels are often previsualized by readers as potential movies. I, on the other hand, started out with the intent to write the script for an actual movie, and only later realized my screenplay’s potential as a published novel. Issuing Hitch&Alma in book form, allows me complete freedom to express my exact vision, without having to make the inevitable changes and compromises that result within the collaborative medium of film.
Did you really write Hitch&Alma with the intention of making it a movie?
SCHOEN: Absolutely! I wrote it as a screenplay, originally called Passionate Minds, revolving around the premise that Hitchcock himself was reluctant to discuss the autobiographical content of his films and their deeper psychological meanings. These aspects of his cinema, to me, are far more fascinating than the superficial suspense plots.
Another thing about Hitchcock's cinema: all his films are essentially love stories set against some great tribulation that inevitably draws the couple even closer. Hitchcock lead a seemingly schizophrenic existence. On one hand, he was the perfect English gentleman, happily married, disciplined, but then he had these fantasy romances with his leading ladies, which Alma had to put up with. This presents a great human conflict: which is the essence of drama.
How did you go about getting your screenplay to Hollywood's attention?
SCHOEN: Producer Bob Kosberg, who made Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, was very excited when I approached him with my concept. I knew that any movie on Hitchcock would have to be executed to the highest standard, that he himself had set. Yet, at the same time, while my story has many Hitchcockian moments, the structure of my story is very un-Hitchcockian. I tried to create a floating world narrative, somewhat akin to that of Jimmy Stewart’s character Scottie in Vertigo.
Throughout the narrative, which largely takes place from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties, there are flashbacks to Hitchcock’s London childhood, and an ongoing interview, based on Hitchcock’s exchange with French director Francois Truffaut. Structure-wise, my story has more in common with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America…, or Welles’ Citizen Kane.
What did Bob Kosberg do to get your screenplay made?
SCHOEN: Bob presented it to Constantin Pictures, and unfortunately, they passed on it. Writing a screenplay is all about rewriting. Even though I had most of the elements in place in my story at that time, I spent the next six months refining my screenplay. I then determined that the best director to make it into a movie was Martin Scorsese. In the summer of 1997, I was able to have an agent pitch my script to Scorsese himself. He liked the premise and agreed to read it.
So Scorsese himself considered making Hitch&Alma?
SCHOEN: It was still called Passionate Minds, at that point. The agent explained to me that Scorsese was booked solid with projects for the next eight years, so it was a miracle he even asked to read it in the first place. It took another five months for him to get back with me. He was in the last stages of releasing Kundun. Shortly thereafter, he sent a letter stating he enjoyed the script very much, found it exceptionally sophisticated, he liked the story premise and thought it was witty and effective. But then again, he also decided not to make it.
That’s still impressive praise, coming from such an important director.
SCHOEN: It sure was. It was just a thrill for me to get to the point where a man like Scorsese would read my work. I had only been writing screenplays for a year, at the time. But that’s the good thing about rejection: it pushed me to work harder to perfect my script, so that it wouldn't be rejected for any lack of quality. I rewrote it many times over, often rewatching Hitchcock’s films and thinking of an added piece of dialogue or a small scene to make the story work all the better.
How much of your story is true? Did you rely heavily on other author’s biographies?
SCHOEN: The biographical information for my book came from a lifelong fascination with Hitchcock the man, as well as his cinema. I guess that was the result of growing up in the fifties and seeing him present his television show. My story was an amalgam of all the memories of anecdotes and humorous incidents in Hitchcock’s life, and an attempt to link them to his work. I was deeply impressed by many authors’ insightful works on Hitchcock. Donald Spoto’s biography, Alfred Hitchcock:The Dark Side of Genius, was truly an exhaustive and wonderful example of first hand research into the director’s life, and gave me a tremendous background to work from. The same can be said for the Truffaut / Hitchcock interview, published in book form in 1967.
But as much as I valued these works, I refrained from rereading them during the initial stages of writing of Hitch&Alma, because I wanted to convey my own original insights. I reenacted the Truffaut interview as part of my story, but included only two of Truffaut’s original observations. The rest I made up. I’ll say right now that Spoto’s exhaustive biography almost makes any other writer’s attempt to write on Hitchcock’s life an exercise in redundancy. But as comprehensive as it was, I don't think he gave enough emphasis to Alma’s contributing role, or conveyed the lasting impression of his close relation with his mother Emma.
My aim in Hitch&Alma was to create a multileveled portrait of the man, rather than to just present a straightforward account of his life. At times my work is highly speculative, even blatantly fictional. I wanted to create a buffer of privacy in dealing with Hitchcock’s family; therefore incidents from his childhood, certain characterizations of his mother and father, and certain incidents portrayed between him and Alma, are derived from the texts of his films. In other words, I wanted Hitchcock’s films to be the primary source for the glimpses into his life, presenting these incidents as possible inspirations for what ultimately ended up on the screen.
In other words, you retro-engineered the autobiographical content of Hitchcock’s films, in order to arrive at a biography of the man?
I was very impressed with the overall layout of your book, the introduction, the detailed notes after the text, where you clearly spell out the difference between the fictional and the factual elements of your story. I also liked the filmography section, where you listed the Hitchcock films mentioned in your novel, offering the reader a good synopsis of the original film’s story line and a clear reference to the original scene that inspired your novel’s outtake variation.
SCHOEN: I thought it my duty to clearly annotate all references to the seventeen Hitchcock films that are covered in Hitch&Alma, for all those who weren’t as fanatical about Hitchcock as myself. This way I could also extend a credit to the original screenwriters and actors, whose work inspired my "outtakes."
These "outtakes," as you call them, are pretty fascinating in and of themselves. I came away with the distinct impression that Hitchcock could have really created some of these alternative scenes at one time. Is there any proof that he did?
SCHOEN: As I mention in the notes section, I was inspired to create this outtake "Mac Guffen" by references in the biographies of Hitchcock’s penchant to recreate some the scenes of his old movies with new leading ladies. Hitchcock had Tippi Hedren reprise Ingrid Bergman's role from Notorious in a screen test, then claimed to have destroyed the footage for legal purposes. Of course, it occurred to me that maybe he never really destroyed this footage at all, but kept it within a secret collection somewhere.
Dan Auiler’s wonderful recent book, Vertigo, the Making of a Hitchcock Classic, reveals how there really was an alternative ending to Vertigo, although not as radical as the one I made up. But Hitchcock was an artist, and to paraphrase Alma in my book, who’s to say he didn’t "make home movies on the studio’s dime?"
I was impressed with the story dynamic centering on Hitchcock’s mother and his wife Alma. Was this based on fact, or completely speculative on your part?
A little of both, really. In my note section, I lay out the films in which I believe Hitchcock created portraits of the two most important women in his life. The domestic banter I created between Hitch and Alma is largely based on the Detective Oxford and Mrs. Oxford character in Frenzy, which I'm convinced is Hitchcock's affectionate portrait of Alma, and his life with her. As I wrote my story, I became ever more convinced that Alma Reville Hitchcock was definitely Hitchcock’s first and last leading lady.
I think she understood her husband was a great artist, and that the infatuations he developed over his various leading ladies were part of that artistic process. I’m sure Alma was his closest partner in every sense. In writing about Hitchcock, it’s impossible not to point out Alma’s contributing role and Hitchcock’s great dependence on her as a creative and supportive partner.
Your portrayal of the collaboration between Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock seemed at times a bit combative. Were you implying there was a little rivalry between the two?
SCHOEN: In a very subtle way, I guess I was. But more than a rivalry, I meant to characterize Herrmann as having an artistic stature that put him more on an equal footing with Hitch, than perhaps other excellent film collaborators. I wanted to portray Herrmann as a knowing figure, who saw the obsessive undercurrents within Hitchcock’s stories, perhaps because he had similar obsessions himself.
I have a great respect and love for Herrmann’s music, and think it marries perfectly with Hitchcock’s vision. Their break up during Torn Curtain was a tragedy, precipitated in part by Herrmann writing a music score to the torturous murder of Gromik in the East German farmhouse. Hitchcock specifically wrote instructions to Herrmann that he wanted this scene without a score, the same direction he had given Herrmann in regards to the shower scene in Psycho. Of course, in that instance, when Hitch heard the shower score, he allowed it in.
But when Hitch arrived at the recording session, he saw the unusual orchestra arranged with sixteen French horns, twelve flutes and no violins, and learned that Herrmann had again disobeyed him by writing the Gromik murder score. He cancelled the scoring session and hired another composer. Although I don’t clearly imply it in my story, perhaps Hitchcock did not want another of his great cinematic scenes to be again upstaged by an equally great Herrmann score. Or perhaps he was simply asserting his directorial authority, and lost one of his best collaborators because of his pride. After all, Hitch was a Leo.
With the liberties you’ve taken to the literal truth, how do you think ardent Hitchcock fans will react to your book?
SCHOEN: That’s an interesting question. I submitted a prepublication copy to Ken Mogg, editor extrodinaire of the scholarly journal devoted to Hitchcock, ‘The MacGuffin.’ Ken reluctantly accepted my invitation to read Hitch&Alma, stating he wasn’t interested in fictional accounts at all. But after reading my book twice, he wrote back an enthusiastic four-page letter complimenting the many insights and humor found in my story. I admit to feeling a great sense of relief that such an authority would respond so positively to what is, in essence, my very personal interpretation of the man.
Ken went on to write he found himself laughing out loud frequently, and that he felt my speculation on the dynamics of Hitch’s interrelated feelings for Alma, his mother, and his leading ladies, often convinced him I had put my finger on the very truth.
Frankly, I don’t think a straightforward biographical novel, or screenplay, on Hitchcock would work, for many reasons, but mostly because I think it takes an artist to convey the essence of another artist’s life. Hitch&Alma was as much a work of art for me, as any sculpture or painting I’ve ever made.
You had a successful career as a visual artist, carving marble sculptures in Italy, before you turned to writing. What made you switch to writing in the first place?
Ironically, I began my writing career in January 1996, when the news broke around the world about the "discovery" of Michelangelo’s lost Cupid, standing in a lobby on Fifth Ave in New York, literally across the street from the Metropolitan Museum. I had discovered the same Cupid back in 1984, and tried to tell the Met about it, but they never took me seriously. Later, an art dealer whom I had told about the Cupid, tried to buy the Michelangelo and sell it to the Getty Museum. Another friend tried to buy the whole building from the French, just to get the Michelangelo sculpture in the lobby!. Anyway, I started writing to get out my proof that this Cupid really was a Michelangelo. Then, I just kept writing: seven screenplays and a novel, so far.
I understand you even wrote a screenplay on Michelangelo's making of this Cupid, that was optioned by a producer. What are some of the other screenplays you've written?
Broken Eternity is the story of the little known Roman patron who Michelangelo lived with while carving the Bacchus and the Cupid. It reveals how this lost Cupid lead to the commission for the Pieta', which lifted this genius from obscurity. Centuries is an atmospheric gothic horror script about reincarnation and living statues, set in Venice. Loveweb is a screwball comedy about a long married husband and wife who rekindle their passion for each other when they meet anonymously on the Internet. Atlantis Rising is an epic Millennial adventure that spans from Egypt, to Antarctica, and back to ancient Atlantis itself, where a crew must travel to prevent a catastrophic polar shift.
Getting back to Hitch&Alma, who do you think this book will appeal to?
SCHOEN: I think anyone who likes Hitchcock’s films will be drawn into the story immediately, and the more knowledgeable they are about the films, the more fun and easier it will be for them to pick up on the more subtle references. But in essence, this is a true human drama about the inner conflict created by the secret desires everyone harbors within themselves. I’m trying to show how Hitchcock, with the help and support of his understanding wife, realized those fantasies through the art of cinema.
How much of yourself did you put into Hitch&Alma?
As a lifelong fan of his work, I consider Hitchcock to be my most important teacher in matters of psychology and cinema. I had a lot of fun writing this, and my own brand of humor owes a lot to Hitchcock. I felt a tremendous responsibility to create a work worthy of my subject, and a big motivation on my part was to draw attention to the subtle psychological portraits Hitchcock created, often overlooked by the general audience, that appreciated him only as a maker of thrillers.
So why not continue trying to get your screenplay made as a movie, instead of publishing it as a novel?
SCHOEN: That’s exactly what I’m trying to do! Ken Mogg put it very well when he advised me, "Perhaps you should come clean, and tell your readers you have no intention of making a movie at all. This is really a fantasy novel POSING as a screenplay. You’d never be able to get actors to convincingly portray the twelve or so famous people depicted in your book."
He has a point.
SCHOEN: Indeed he does. Any producer or director considering my screenplay will no doubt see the casting of these roles as a daunting challenge. But perhaps an even greater challenge Hitch&Alma faces, is that screenplays usually dwell on just one simple theme, revolving around a focused group of core characters. Hitch&Alma is an epic, more akin to a novel in its complexity of interwoven themes.
Who knows? Maybe the book will inspire a movie version. At least we already know who’s going to write the screenplay.
It’s already written, for that matter. I’ve heard your screenplay recently won some impressive recognition from the Academy Foundation, the outfit that gives out the Oscars.
SCHOEN: I’m happy to say that an earlier version of Hitch&Alma (at that point, still titled "Passionate Minds") was selected as one of the 1998 quarterfinalists of the Academy Foundation’s Nicholl fellowship awards. This is the most prestigious screenplay contest around, in which of 4,500 entrants, I was one of only 225 writers to make the quarterfinals.
So, whom would you get to play Hitchcock?
SCHOEN: I’ve always thought of Kevin Spacey. But authors get into trouble whenever they start casting their characters. Remember Anne Rice? I’m just satisfied seeing Hitch&Alma get out into the world. I’ve done my job, for now.
(About the music on this site: These sound clips are selections fromBernard Herrmann's great film music. This page plays the Love Theme from Vertigo.)
A reading sample from Hitch&Alma:
Events during the Hitchcock Centennial
Did Hitch have a secret collection of Outtakes? Some Photos and Posters:
Alma, the woman behind a very large man:
Hitchcock's Other Leading Ladies:
The Mother in Hitchcock's films:
Hitch & Herrmann, artists with the same obsessive vision:
Hitch at Work:
Fine Art and Hitchcock:
Reader’s and Web Site Visitor’s Comments:
Book description and how to order a copy of Hitch&Alma:
Links to other Great Hitchcock Web Sites: